Nvidia's cloud-gaming service, GeForce Now, has made some strides since it launched roughly six months ago, though like many of its competitors, it still feels like there are a lot of planets that need to come into alignment before it feels "done." In GeForce Now's case, they're Planet Network and Planet Games. Though the service has settled into adding games on a weekly basis, there are still some pretty big gaps in its repertoire, and the network is still at the mercy of conditions mostly beyond the company's control.
Like Google Stadia, Xbox Gamepass Ultimate game streaming (formerly xCloud) and other cloud-gaming technologies, GeForce Now renders and streams supported PC games from its data centers to phones, Chromebooks, PCs and Macs so you can play on devices that might otherwise not be able to run them. One added benefit is you don't have to deal with keeping the system updated or worry about stability.
The service debuted on the company's Nvidia Shield streamer long before it went into beta for PC, Mac and Android phones. But the Shield has one advantage over all the other devices GFN runs on: It's always connected via a wired line to your modem or router. That eliminates one of the biggest variables for cloud gaming: wireless latency. Sure, you can connect PCs and Macs via Ethernet, but that can be really cumbersome depending upon how your space is laid out.
GFN differs from the competition in that it works with games you've already paid for (primarily on Steam) or gotten for free (mostly through the Epic Games Store) rather than requiring you buy a special version of the game (like Stadia) or stream games from a particular subscription library (like xBox Gamepass Ultimate or Sony PlayStation Now).
It's also similar to virtual machine services like Shadow; they provide you with an entire, persistent Windows system in the cloud that you can access via phone as well as other devices, which means you can essentially play any existing Windows game. That's a more expensive solution, though it offers one perk the others don't: It works on iPhones and iPads as well as all the other devices.
You boot up the appropriate app for Android, Windows or Mac OS, find a supported game in your Steam library (or one of a few you've gotten directly from Ubisoft or Epic Game Store) and commence play. There are also about 90 standard free-to-play games. The app connects to the closest data center, which hosts the engine to render the games and stream them to you. Gameplay syncing and account management is handled by the respective services.
To use GeForce Now, you need a consistent connection of 15 megabits per second for 720p at 60frames per second and 25Mbps for 1,920x1,080 at 60fps. I got 1080p on desktop; while on a Razer Phone 2 it ran at 720p.
It can generally run on almost any PC or Mac with a CPU or GPU that's newer than 10 years old, as long as it supports DirectX 9 and has a 64-bit operating system, or on an Android phone with 2GB RAM, running at least Android 5.0 (Lollipop) or later, and support for OpenGL ES3.2 higher. It can also run on Chromebooks with a seventh-gen Intel Core M3 or better (which has integrated Intel HD Graphics 600) and 4GB or more of RAM. (Here are the detailed system requirements.)
You definitely don't want to play on any of these with a laptop's touchpad or many with a phone's touchscreen. A controller or mouse and keyboard, depending upon the game, come highly recommended.
Nope. Nvidia isn't alone here. Apple doesn't enable dedicated game-streaming apps on the App Store without some highly impractical hoop jumping, so you still can't play with Google Stadia, Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass Ultimate game streaming (xCloud), Sony PlayStation Now and some others.
Amazon's nascent Luna gets around the restriction by playing via Safari using a web shortcut, and we'll probably see a lot more like that. Most of the platforms that already have web support -- notably Stadia -- only work with Chrome on all but iOS at the moment.
At the moment, GFN has two tiers. You can play for free, or pay $4.99 a month for a Founders membership or $24.95 for a six-month Founders offer. The latter deal saves you a grand total of $5.
|Cost||Free||$4.99/month for 12 months||$24.95 for six months|
|Availability||Now||Now, limited time offer||Now, limited time offer|
|Quality||1080/60p||1080/60p, RTX ray-tracing acceleration||1080/60p, RTX ray-tracing acceleration|
|Perks||None||Priority access||Priority access, Hyper Scape Season One Battle Pass Token and in-game content pack|
|Restrictions||One hour per session limit||Six hours per session limit||Six hours per session limit|
|Platforms||Nvidia Shield, Mac OS, Windows 10, Android; Chrome OS||Nvidia Shield, Mac OS, Windows 10, Android; Chrome OS||Nvidia Shield, Mac OS, Windows 10, Android; Chrome OS|
If you're using the free tier, you can only play in one-hour increments, compared to the six hours you get with the Founders' plans. You can have an unlimited number of sessions -- that is, launch back into the game -- but you might not be able to get back in immediately since Founders are always ahead of you in line. The length of the wait seems to be dependent on where you are and the time of day.
The longest wait I had on the free plan (via the northeast data center) was about 5 minutes, even at what I thought would be at peak gametime, but I've seen others mention longer wait times.
The one-hour limit is fine for some games. It's about how long I can survive in Don't Starve (which is no longer on the service!). But, for example, that game usually invokes perma-death, and you can usually only force a loadable-in-future save while quitting, which is the last thing you want to do since there might be a queue to get back in. The only files you can save locally are screenshots and gameplay captures via the Windows Game Bar.
In addition to jumping to the front of the sign-in queue, the Founders plan turns on RTX ray-tracing acceleration for use with games that support it. I could see obvious improvements in some of the lighting and reflections with it on for Wolfenstein: Youngblood, but nothing that vastly improves the experience of the game.
Nvidia finally fixed one of the biggest frustrations with GeForce Now, bringing back the list of all compatible games so you can scroll through and determine if enough of your favorites are there to make it worth your while to subscribe.
Nvidia is slowly improving discoverability. It can now sync your Steam game library with your GFN library, but the sync is all-or-nothing, which means you can weed out games you've already played or others you just don't want in your GFN library without doing it manually post-sync. It did let me conclusively see that only 52 of the roughly 219 games I have in Steam were available in GFN; less than a quarter of my library.
The initial version that we got in February 2020 was a scaled-back shadow of the full-featured prerelease version. It lacked many beta options that made the service so appealing, including the ability to play games that weren't officially supported. Things got worse: Shortly after launch, big game publishers began asking Nvidia to remove support for their games, in at least one case claiming that the licensing contracts only covered the beta and not the commercial release.
These are the major publishers whose games remain unavailable on GeForce Now as of this writing: Activision, Bethesda Softworks (except for Wolfenstein: Youngblood), Blizzard, Capcom, Electronic Arts (except for Apex Legends), Konami, Remedy, Rockstar Games and Square Enix. That covers a lot of popular games and franchises, including Resident Evil, Overwatch, Madden NFL, Grand Theft Auto and Final Fantasy.
Even when Nvidia manages to get it all straightened out, the here-for-a-year-then-gone streaming business model for games you've licensed yourself will remain a problem: You don't actually own any game with DRM that requires a store launcher or publisher login. When you look at comments about the service, you'll see a lot of people who pay $60 or more for games specifically to use them with GeForce Now, either because they want to play on mobile or because they lack the system power necessary to play locally. If that's your plan, don't do it.
If you already own games you want to use with GeForce Now, on the other hand, there's little downside and a lot of upside. That's also true if you're only planning to play free games such as Fortnite or DOTA 2.
Nvidia has Highlights, which can automatically record notable gameplay, and FreeStyle, for applying filters to your games. And Ansel -- the high-resolution capture tool in Nvidia's drivers -- will be arriving soon in GeForce Now. However, they're not available on all games. Highlights, for instance, seems to be added on a case-by-case basis.
When I first tested it at launch, I was impressed with GeForce Now's performance on the Razer equipped with a Junglecat gamepad and a Dell XPS 13 with an Xbox Wireless Controller -- even over my generally meh home network, which usually makes cloud-gaming services gag. It's hard to tell if the slight (but occasionally frustrating) response lag I experience in Cuphead, Yakuza Kiwami, Don't Starve (one of which is no longer on the service!) and others is the Bluetooth-connected controller, the game, the service or just me. Or all of the above.
But, as usual, beyond a certain point it's not the hardware that holds back the experience; it's your internet connection. And bandwidth is only one factor when playing. The consistency of the connection is even more important, and it's something you can't measure because it changes minute to minute -- and it's hard to fix in many situations. That doesn't always translate to poorer gameplay, but it frequently does start glitching the controls.
It's also worth noting that every setup I play on, including on a full-fat gaming desktop via our lab Fios network over Wi-Fi, serves up random "spotty connection" errors and occasional degradation in the video quality. There's been no audio dropout, which was an issue for me early on and can be a problem with cloud gaming. The impact on battery life was also decent, or at least not as bad as expected.
The same goes for the experience on Chromebooks. I tried it on the Chromebook 715, which falls on the high end of the performance spectrum. On my home network, I'd launch a game when the connection was OK and at least 150Mbps, but by the time the opening screen appeared I'd start getting "spotty connection" warnings on a regular basis. In Observation, the glitchy video and unresponsive camera controls could pass as part of the game. In a platformer like Dead Cells, not so much. So your mileage may vary.
The one thing all these networks have in common is crowding on the Wi-Fi channels. There are no lightly used ones among the 20 or so Wi-Fi networks surrounding my apartment and my router. Ethernet is an option, but really inconvenient, which is probably true for a lot of people. This isn't unique to GeForce Now. It happens with all the services for me. But clearly it's an issue, given that Nvidia has a recommended router program for the service.
At its best, GeForce Now can be a seamless experience, nearly indistinguishable from playing a game installed on the machine in front of you. But even then, fast-paced first-person shooters are the most sensitive to network and backend issues, and more often feel just a few split-seconds off, enough to distract from the experience.
If the game catalog had more big-name franchises and one could be confident in games sticking around, it would be well worth a few bucks a month for access. But while we used to think the technical issues were going to be the service's biggest obstacle, it turns out the business model was the hidden danger lurking around the corner the whole time.